When I was going through Chetan Anand’s filmography last year (to commemorate his birth centenary), I stumbled across a Chetan Anand film in which he starred, besides directing it: a film, too, which immediately struck me as unusual, just given its length: a mere one hour. For a Hindi film, rare indeed. Though I didn’t watch Arpan back then, I bookmarked it and decided I’d watch it sometime later.
And it is an unusual film. Not just short, but also somewhat surreal in places. Hauntingly beautiful at times, outright odd at others.
Arpan is set, we are told, 2,500 years ago. A famine is ravaging the land, and people are starving left, right and centre. In this situation, the royalty, of course, is expected to set an example, and thus Princess Madhavi (Sheila Ramani) is going about, a large entourage with her, distributing food to her father’s subjects.
Today is the hundredth birthday of one of India’s greatest and most popular dancers of yesteryears. Sitara Devi was born in Calcutta on November 8, 1920, to a father who was a Sanskrit scholar and also both performed as well as taught Kathak. Her mother too came from a family with a long tradition in performing arts, so it was hardly a surprise that from a very young age, Sitara (her birth name was Dhanalakshmi) began to learn Kathak. By the time she was ten, Sitara was giving solo performances; two years later, at the age of twelve, she (having since moved to Bombay with her parents) performed onstage and so impressed film-maker/choreographer Niranjan Sharma that he recruited her to work in films.
Unlike several other skilled danseuses—Vyjyanthimala, the Travancore Sisters, Waheeda Rehman, etc—Sitara Devi did not let cinema take over her dance completely. She danced in a number of films, through the 40s and right up to Mother India (1957), which is believed to be her last onscreen appearance. She continued to give stage performances, even performing at New York’s Carnegie Hall and at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Sitara Devi wasn’t merely a film actress; she was also a great dancer. I wanted to pay tribute to her through a review of one of her films, and decided I’d choose Hulchul, which I wanted to watch for other reasons as well (more on this later).